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Sue Rodriguez is consoled by NDP MP Svend Robinson after leaving a press conference in Victoria in September, 1993, after The Supreme Court of Canada turned down Rodriguez's plea to a doctor assisted suicide. (Jeff Vinnick/ REUTERS)

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Canadians who want to die with dignity should not have to engage in expensive and emotionally wrenching court battles for the right to do so.

The federal government must lead on this issue, which carries extraordinary social significance. Ottawa should heed the advice of a high-profile panel on end-of-life issues and decriminalize voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide, as several other jurisdictions have already done, including the Netherlands, Oregon, Switzerland and Belgium.

The Royal Society of Canada, which released a report by a panel of experts Tuesday, has recommended changing the Criminal Code, which currently makes counselling, aiding or abetting someone to die a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison. The report argues that some form of assisted suicide be permitted – even for those who have not been diagnosed with a terminal illness, because patients may be suffering terribly and permanently.

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A national oversight body should be created to ensure that assisted suicide is framed narrowly and that safeguards are in place to prevent abuse. The body would report annually and publicly on assisted suicide to maintain public trust in the system and to make sure that all the required conditions are met. Physicians who object on moral or cultural grounds could refer patients to another doctor.

In light of this report, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson should reconsider the position of the government, which has so far ruled out reform, despite the corrosive litigation patients and family members launch for the right to die. "There are persuasive ethical arguments for reforms across the spectrum of end-of-life law and policy," the report concludes. "Action is necessary to prevent a continuation of the cycle of damaging and inconclusive litigation."

In an echo of the Sue Rodriguez case of 1993, the B.C. Supreme Court is now hearing the case of Gloria Taylor, 63, who is terminally ill and suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. Ms. Taylor does not want to have to face an agonizing and drawn-out death. She doesn't want to endure unspeakable pain, lose her ability to swallow, walk and talk. Why should she? A majority of Canadians are in favour of legalizing euthanasia.

There must be a way for society to allow mentally competent adults suffering from devastating and incurable illnesses to make voluntary and informed choices about how they want to die.

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